The Aesthetics of Sufficiency: On Conceptual Writing

WHO, THESE DAYS, is the queen of the genres? This is a question we’ve been asking for centuries; in 1798, Friedrich Schlegel defined Romantic poetry as “a progressive, universal poetry” and claimed that

[i]t alone can become, like the epic, a mirror of the whole circumambient world, an image of the age. And it can also — more than any other form — hover at the midpoint between the portrayed and the portrayer, free of all real and ideal self-interest, on the wings of poetic reflection, and can raise that reflection again and again to a higher power, can multiply it in an endless succession of mirrors. […] It alone is infinite, just as it alone is free; and it recognizes as its first commandment that the will of the poet can tolerate no law above itself.

The romantic kind of poetry is the only one that is more than a kind, that is, as it were, poetry itself: for in a sense all poetry is or should be romantic. 

Ever since Schlegel first floated the idea of a kind of literature “that is more than a kind,” and that was uniquely suited to provide “an image of the age” — that could contain, treat, annotate, react to, and converse with everything and anything in heaven or in earth — a lot of our most energetic literary history has been the history of searching for a literary form that’s truly good enough. If literature is to be our most profound, fullest expression of what life is — and, really, who can ask for less, once the Romantics put this option on the table? — then, to be adequate, a work of literature must be omnivorous, ubiquitous, eternally awake. A literary work that’s good enough to pass the Schlegel test would have to resonate at every frequency, extend along every dimension life can move in, and know how to talk back in every language you can talk at it. A literary form that’s good enough is any form that wouldn’t fuck this up before you even started: a form that is sufficient not just for something, but for everything.

For a while — for some people — the search for such a sufficient form ended with the modern novel. For the great early twentieth century critic Mikhail Bakhtin, the novel was literature’s apotheosis and apocalypse:

The utter inadequacy of literary theory is exposed when it is forced to deal with the novel. […] The novel parodies other genres (precisely in their role as genres); it exposes the conventionality of their forms and their language; it squeezes out some genres and incorporates others into its own peculiar structure, reformulating and re-accentuating them.

But the ultimate adequacy of the novel has turned out a temporary, fragile thing — too fragile for the ravages of the twenty-first century, with its sprawling globalized cities and loosely defined wars and endless Internet. After having bulked itself up with the mega-novels of modernism (Joyce’s Ulysses, Musil’s Man Without Qualities, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow) in order to face the challenge of the last century, fiction now seems content to be just one form among many, and not the be-all and end-all.

Against Expression — a recent anthology summating the vast tide of recent writers practicing “conceptual poetics,” a literature that explores the aesthetic potential of databases, plagiarism, context, and the materiality of language — represents literary culture’s newest, meanest effort at sufficiency. Compiled by star practitioner Kenneth Goldsmith and lead academic liaison Craig Dworkin to be not so much a treasury of verse as an argument-by-demonstration, this anthology will excite the reader who wants more than normal literature gives her, as well as annoy — and, perhaps, haunt — the one who values her belief that normal literature gives her everything already. It’s the latest news bulletin sent to the culture at large from the dense, hectic, vast, usually invisible sub-world of avant-garde (or “post-avant,” “post-Language” or “experimental”) poetics in America, where literary history is always a dead-serious open question.  

For Goldsmith and Dworkin, conceptual writing is what comes about when digital culture and late-late-capitalist globalism become more than even modernist techniques could handle. What they and their fellow conceptualists say we need is a literature that can exist authentically within the epochal condition of (per Goldsmith)

language as material, language as process, language as something to be shoveled into a machine and spread across pages, only to be discarded and recycled once again. Language as junk, language as detritus. Nutritionless language, meaningless language, unloved language, entartete sprache, everyday speech, illegibility, unreadability, machinistic repetition.

As the conceptual writer sees it, we are all text-producing, text-consuming creatures, even before we are creatures who have love affairs or family crises or creatures who have lyrical experiences looking at trees. What literature can’t do to our modern satisfaction by describing or evoking the things of our world, it can do by taking into itself a large part of the stuff that’s actually in that world: tax forms, chats, indexes, letters, daily speech, radio jabber, e-mails, everything that’s ever been on the internet, even literature itself. For those who are still looking for a literary art that answers Schlegel’s specifications, Against Expression is a very exciting book.

A reader who is unmoved by the content or the pathos of the question of adequacy might experience less of a thrill, since, in and of themselves, works of conceptual writing tend to be a rather plain affair. There’s the novel that’s an issue of the New York Times retyped (or scanned) and published as a 600 page paperback (Goldsmith’s Day, from 2003). There’s the poem that’s all the translations of the first verse of Dante’s Divine Comedy to English one after the other. There’s the one that’s only the first person sentences from The Sun Also Rises, or the one that is a series of testimony records from rape trials, unchanged except for context. Or the one that’s a compendium of everything the author heard that year that ends with an “ar” sound, assorted by length. These works — some of them stunningly beautiful, some of them pretty much OK — exemplify what Goldsmith likes to call “uncreative writing,” a practice that lies somewhere between constructing a Duchampian ready-made and downloading an MP3.

The best works in the conceptualist genre, usually by Goldsmith himself, are as sublime as they are trivial — “sublime” in the old, heavy German sense of something which extends a logic we can follow to a point beyond what the mind’s eye can grasp. Unfortunately, the anthology can only present extremely short selections from the books of its hundred and some featured writers, which deprives these uncreative works of one of their most important attributes: duration. The sublime of conceptual writing resides in the moment when you’ve read enough of Goldsmith’s 606-page compendium of words ending with “ar” that you now can’t read more of it without going insane but can almost grasp how it goes on in the same fashion for five hundred pages more, like one who almost grasps how the sea goes on in the same fashion for thousands of miles more after the horizon. This effect doesn’t kick in with a five-page sample, and here “No.” comes off as merely cute. 

Although “pure” uncreative works like “No.” are emphasized most by the anthologists’ introductions, the more satisfying part of Against Expression is the work of the conceptual writing movement’s many fellow travelers. Networked around the core of hardline “uncreative” writing is a vast world of freer, semi-creative compositions that flirt or negotiate with conceptual practices without going all the way. There are novels made from pieces torn out of other novels (Rob Fitterman’s The Sun Also Also Rises, Walter Abish’s Skin Deep), lyric poems culled from the dregs of Google searches (K. Sillem Mohammed’s “Sonnagrams,” Nada Gordon’s “Abnormal Discharge”), biographies expressed as databases (Darren Wershler’s “The Tapeworm Foundry,” Georges Perec’s “Attempt at an Inventory…”) and databases rendered as biographies (Craig Dworkin’s “Legion”). Inasmuch as pure uncreativity is not a likely candidate for a new literary mainstay, it’s these latter, semi-creative works that best embody the intention of conceptual writing to be the larger whole that can contain all of “ordinary” literature within it. Sadly, the two most profound works written within this mode in recent years — Tan Lin’s “7 Controlled Vocabularies” and Caroline Bergvall’s “Goan Atom” — aren’t in the anthology, but one does find a wealth of striking works, like this excerpt from Ara Shirinyan’s Your Country Is Great (a series of poems assembled from Google searches for the phrase “[blank country] is great”):

Cameroon is great!) The traditional list of the
top 100 milliadaires (billionaires) of a country
is usually made up of Entrepreneurs

the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the edification
of the body of Christ in Cameroon, is great,
and we do not want
to only be a slogan.

Cameroon is great for after dinner
and it. has earned the much sought
after 90 rating. from a
leading cigar publication.

Conceptual writing promises to live in the negative space of ordinary literature: to expose the conventionality of ordinary literature’s form and language, and incorporate both into its own peculiar superstructure. This claim is not as absurd as it might at first seem; as Dworkin points out, “despite the genuinely contrarian and oppositional stance of contemporary uncreative writing,” the conceptualist work incorporates all “conservative and traditional poetic values” of measure, rhyme, confession, irony, classical rhetoric, emotion, and the representation of reality. “Eruditio ex Memeoria,” a classic book-length work by sixties poet Bernadette Mayer made of memories of documents, schoolworks and papers, is wonderful enough alone to merit taking the whole matter very seriously:

I saw a doctor, a doctor. It was Antonin Artaud. He was elected to the Royal Academy, no, that was Chekhov. This is the Russian Theater, it’s 1962 or so, the moralist of the venial sin is here, resigning over Gorky. Doctor, a doctor. “The Seagull” defends Zola and Dreyfus, it’s the Moscow Art Theater. Chekhov is Godard. This is what I learned in school. This is what I thought: Artaud, Antonin. Hemispheres become loose in the country, there are new forms. Stanislovsky, etc. Add up a column of numbers, it comes to William Carlos Williams to me. What are the spiritual heights, she said. Just as Uncle Vanya looks like a dial, Paris comes and goes, prissy, lightfooted and beautiful-looking, but, by and large, the outside forces come to the surface. 13y the same token, we seem fully uneven, without the bones and stays. The homecoming; she opened and closed her conversation with adequacy. There’s a picture of a man with a spring for a body. There’s a picture of a woman dancing with a leaf for a hand, her head on a string, hanging forward. It’s Madam Shaw. Relevant is revelant, irrational knot, unsocial socialist, unpleasant and pleasant Madam Shaw. Oh Shaw, polyg-mammalian, the candidate, there’s a heart and a louse on the skunk.


One needn’t fully buy into the Romantic quest for an all-encompassing form in order to get excited when a new literary form appears that seems like it can encompass and transcend all the old ones. Like the literary-historical story about the inadequacy of old literary forms to new world-historical stages, the ideal of absolute sufficiency is an idea whose power as a myth is far more relevant than its shortcomings as a theory. It is the beauty of this myth that makes conceptual writing into more than an occasionally interesting enrichment of the already rich repertoire of experimental writing techniques. If there is an aesthetic discovery that makes conceptual writing what it is — a new basic aesthetic element that the practitioners of the new form discovered how to work with, like the Romantics did with the sublime or the Surrealists with the uncanny — it’s the aesthetics of sufficiency.

This aesthetic operates, in conceptual writing, at two affective levels: a manic level and a melancholic level. At the manic level, we are called upon to see the conceptual work as infinitely open, a language-object that is meant not for interpretation but for an engagement in which anything can be legitimately brought to bear upon the text and the text can legitimately come to bear on anything. This is the manic aesthetic of sufficiency, wherein the “thingness” of the text is understood as ground for its connectedness to all the other things within the world. If this all sounds like just more of the old Barthesian “death of the author” spiel, it no doubt is — but it’s the old spiel taken closer to the point of actual implementation than it ever was before.

From the contrary direction, a conceptual work is also guaranteed a melancholic sufficiency, simply by virtue of being what it is and not another thing: Being empty of any meaning or intention other than fulfilling the instructions that it’s a fulfillment of, the work is perfect by default. The conceptual work is thus grotesquely impregnable to skeptical attacks or deconstructive questioning. Say what you will about “The Bible (alphabetized),” a conceptual work by Rory Macbeth in which the Bible is alphabetized, but there is no denying that it is the ultimate in exploring what the Bible is like alphabetized. The conceptual poem finishes what it starts, and thus it has something that no one can take away from it: a melancholic, useless, but perfectly real sufficiency. This is the melancholic aesthetic of absolute sufficiency, wherein the “thingness” of the text is understood as the ground for its autonomy from all other things within the world.

The dumb, literal sufficiency of the text-object is partly just good as a melancholy trope — just like the sufficiency of the text-object via its infinite openness is partly just good as a manic trope. But the whole matter of the “thingness” of conceptual writing — the way a piece is not to be interpreted but rather pondered vis-à-vis whatever else is in the world, the way it provides the precise answer to a precise question — does have something more to it than avant-gardist horseplay. Literal truth is hard to come by in the high arts and humanities. I don’t know whether Derrida’s Writing and Difference really undoes the metaphysics of the West (probably not), or whether Gertrude Stein really expanded language into new modes of cognition (probably!), but I am positive that a conceptual poem really is informative about the language-matter that surrounds us. If we set out to measure the worth of this literal truth we might well find ourselves with a real ground for mania — or melancholia — about literature’s capacity to be the most profound, fullest expression of what life is.


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